Say What?

Scott Peterson communicates with his horse before the show!

One of the challenges in teaching dressage lies in formulating analogies and phrases to evoke the proper “feeling” between the horse and rider.  On the technical side this includes teaching the mechanics of the movements, the relationship of the aids between the rider and horse,  and the systematic use of the training scale.  More imagination is required on the abstract side, as one must describe  feelings.  Elasticity, forwardness, throughness and many other dressage terms have either different definitions in the real world, or no  application whatsoever.

Many times word selection is pivotal in eliciting the right response from the rider, both physically and emotionally.  This obsession with word choice causes some clients annoyance as I use their questions and interpretations of their rides as indicators of their understanding of the training concepts and of their relationship with the horse.  An example that comes readily to mind is the common malady, “he keeps throwing his head up!”  Although visually this is true, the rider’s choice to focus on the horse’s head leads me to conclude that the rider does not understand that the horse’s head is not the problem, the problem is losing engagement and dropping the back, the head tossing is merely a symptom of this problem.  When focusing on the horse’s head position the rider will usually correct the head tossing with the reins.  This correction is temporary however, as the problem itself has been left unaddressed.  By asking the rider to think and speak in terms of the horse’s back, as opposed the head, it increases the likelihood that he will take the steps necessary to correct the source of the problem, and not patch it up for a few strides with force.

“He keeps drifting out!”  Another clue to a misunderstanding.  If the horse is drifting, breaking stride, speeding up, slowing down or any other deviance from the rider’s intent it is not “his” fault.  If he is doing it, it is likely that the rider is inadvertently asking him to do it.  Pointing out this word choice problem is not one of my more popular speeches.  It almost always merits an exasperated sigh and “you know what I mean”.  The problem here is that, yes, I know the rider is trying to convey the nature of the error, however the words selected indicate that the rider believes the horse is responsible for the failure of the exercise.  The same observation worded “I’m doing something that keeps allowing him to break or asking him to break” is more indicative that the rider is taking responsibility for the error, thus making correcting it a possibility.

A client of mine, a young rider that rehabilitates traumatized horses, used to describe resistance by the horse as “fighting”.  Although I know that she is not using the word literally, or in any way being unkind to the horse, I stop her explanation every time the word fighting is included.  It is important to me, as the trainer, that the relationship between the rider and the horse is one of teaching and understanding.  If the rider feels that the horse is malevolent as opposed to confused then the course of action will be disciplinary instead of instructive.  The word fighting indicates a combative stance with the horse that is not helpful in the training process.  It is the responsibility of the instructor to ascertain the rider’s understanding of the training relationship.  To assume an understanding, in spite of terminology to the contrary, can be a mistake the horse must pay for.

After each lesson use your own words to convey your understanding of the concepts addressed by your trainer.  Your explanation may illuminate misunderstandings that  prevent you from being  the partner your horse deserves.

22 thoughts on “Say What?

  1. How true!!! It is always easier to automatically cast blame on another person (horse) or circumstance than to look at one’s own actions as consequential! Horses can teach us in a kind way what no one else can! Thanks

  2. Soooooo true. It’s so hard to find words for feelings (or correctly express what you’re feeling to your instructor and have them hit the nail on the head). Especially when your mother is teaching you and holding you to higher standards and a lower level of patience than everyone else – haha! 😛

    1. That’s funny!! Not too many people can take lessons from their mother- My mom doesn’t ride and tries to teach me everytime she sees me ride!!! You need to blog about your Mom sometime!! 🙂

      1. haha i definitely will…it can be interesting…esp. since we are fair to Zac and don’t ask him for too much in his old age…so I ride Wilt to do more stuff and she teaches me…and it would be hard enough just to have a lesson…but a lesson on HER horse!! One of her beginner students once watched her teaching me and then when we were done there was a long pause and she looks at my mom and goes, “wow…you must really hate me” :p :p :p

  3. I say keep it up! It’s a brilliant form of instructing, because the words do matter: they indicate, on some level, the rider’s experience. When you reframe the rider’s experience in words that are truer to what is actually happening, you are (IMO) re-patterning the automatic brain response (to negative stimuli) from one of frustration/blame to evaluation/curiousity. That will help the rider for the rest of their lives.

    That’s a life lesson, not just a horse lesson.

    What is my responsibility? Where do I need to look?

    I listened to an instructor recently, who was teaching a hard-working, perfectionistic teen, who wants to understand it all *right now* so badly. Trainer had to keep pointing out, gently, that her horse was not the problem. For this teen, she wasn’t conscious of ‘holding’ onto her horse, and since he’s hot, didn’t give him any release when he gave her a correct response. Totally understandable she’d be unconsciously afraid to let go.

    I thought the instructor hit a wonderful solution. Student simply could not make her hands obey, so instructor said instead “Where is the bit in your horse’s mouth? Feel where the pressure is in his mouth – which side, how much? Tongue or lips?.” Instant soft hands: it was automatic! She was paying attention to how her HORSE felt, not how her body felt. It was a wonderful moment, and I walked away with a tool I will use!

    I agree. How we frame it to ourselves and others makes a HUGE difference.

  4. WOW, what a GREAT topic. Couldn’t resist inserting my two cents worth on this one.
    Being an instructor is…. WAIT, wrong choice of words already…. BEING A GOOD INSTRUCTOR IS very very challenging and a new challenge with each lesson that you give (even to the same horse/rider combo that you’ve taught a hundred times). First and foremost, it is our job to set both the horse and rider up to succeed, then to make doing the right thing the easiest thing. That truly sounds simple enough right?
    Years ago I taught a girl that I would repeatedly say to her “push your heels down” -she never got it. Frustrated at MY lack of communicating correctly to her, one day I said “pick your pinky toe up” and OMG, there it was!
    Just recently I have caught myself trying to explain “through” to a student and caught myself saying to push the horse forward into the hands as to ride from the rear to the front. That’s all good and well and yes, many students that have already experienced “through” understand those words and concept. However, I noticed this student that was doing exactly what I was asking and pushing the horse into the hands but then she blocked the energy she had created with cement hands. Hmmmmm…. okay, she had progressed enough that I had to change the communication with her and I realized that she was ready to understand “through” in a more literal way. Once I explained to her that she was to engage the hind end and push the horse into her hands THEN TO RECEIVE him in her hands and send that energy back through to him to keep the energy flowing- PRESTO, she got it.
    It seems so simple to the person on the rail to be an instructor and its so easy to critique and criticize, but until one has had to explain the same concept in a hundred different ways to make sense and connect with the horse/rider team in front of them at that exact moment….. chat on!
    Don’t forget Atlanta- we still want Suzanne back in Columbia, so I sure hope you all know how lucky you are to have her!

    1. Thanks!!! I love your comments, feel free to join in anytime- I like this being an open forum and usually like everyone’s comments better than my own!! Will be seeing you soon!!! 🙂

  5. Oh, I REALLY like this approach and I can’t wait to apply it to Solo. I can definitely see how verbalizing, even to oneself, in the frame of what is really going on could help bring focus to the root of issues. I especially like your idea about thinking about the back — my dressage trainer has us beginning to do this as well, focusing on the feeling of the hind legs and thinking about directing their movement before anything else.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I am always happy if someone else is working along the same line, it makes me feel like maybe I’m not crazy! I love your blog- am going to read more of it tonight! Thanks again!

  6. Good post! Humans are programmed to communicate verbally. What we say is very telling (no pun intended) to what we’re doing. I guarantee that the person who is talking about the horse’s head is riding the horse’s head. They may think they’re not, hence the “You know what I mean!”, but obviously neither the instructor nor the horse knows what they mean. We have to be able to communicate effectively with our horses and, because of how our brains work, that means we have to be able to effectively talk about what we’re doing. If you can’t explain it to someone else, you probably aren’t doing it right. I learned that important lesson in my first year of teaching!

    1. That first year teaching bit is true isn’t it? I sure was surprised at how many things I was doing without having the ability to verbalize them! I still find myself searching for adjectives!! 🙂

    1. Haha! Sabrena got caught!! Come on back and join the discussions! I like to hear everyone’s perspective. Your email is funny- downsomemoney- good horse owner address! 🙂

  7. I actually am making your blog required reading for my students :). So, I didn’t get caught- I’ve advised my students to take advantage of the opportunity for growth via your vast wealth of knowledge and your awesome blog!

  8. One thing I LOVE about Sabrena is she ALWAYS has a way of explaining something to me even when I think she’s speaking spanish lol. I am now really riding again for the first time in 4 years.. So I have to build my confidence, and put myself back together then keep it together while on the horse.. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me! and I CAN”T WAIT! haha

  9. I love this post. If more riders looked to themselves, not always as the cause of riding problems but as the party responsible for fixing them, there would be many more happy horse/rider pairs out there. Two thumbs up to Tango!

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